A birder's passion

Alex Mann regularly visits Coal Dock Park with his binoculars and camera in search of as many different bird species as he can find. Photo by Sam Arendt (Lower photos) Alex Mann of Port Washington captures many in photographs, including (from top down) a Caspian tern at Coal Dock Park, a wood duck in the Port marina, a white-winged crossbill in Port (left) and a turkey vulture along Highway A. Photos by Alex Mann


Ozaukee Press staff

People who aren’t bird enthusiasts may not know that feathered friends can alter the size of their organs as needed or that southeast Wisconsin is a southern gateway for some species and a northern retreat for others from as far away as South America.

Those are some of the facts that fascinate Port Washington’s Alex Mann, who has watched birds in the area for the past six years.

The hobby lines up with Mann’s childhood interests. He loved spending as much time as he could outside while growing up near Green Bay. His parents got him a field guide that he would regularly read before bedtime.

“I always appreciated nature,” he said.

Six years ago, he and his wife Lindy attended a Horicon Marsh Bird Festival. That’s where Mann started developing a passion for birds that has only grown since.

Knowledge absorbed from that field guide decades earlier came back to the forefront of his memory, and Mann found a website filled with archives and checklists of bird information, including where and when they are seen across the world. Mann regularly contributes his data to ebird.org, which is run by Cornell University.

Mann also found a supportive community of new friends.

“Birding is huge. Everybody knows everybody. It’s always a friend of a friend,” he said.

Ages of enthusiasts run from teens to the 90s.

Mann meets his friends from a Milwaukee birding club every Sunday to gather and look for birds.

“We end up socializing so much that I’m sure some stuff escapes us,” he said.

They are armed with binoculars and a wealth of background knowledge, but the eyes don’t do all the searching.

“A lot of it is by ear,” Mann said.

Listening to different parts of birds’ songs can reveal a species, he said. A app on his phone called Merlin helps identify birds through sound, and Mann has been able to do some of it by himself.

Mann also captures photos. Those and sound files get uploaded to ebird.org, and Cornell uses the data to improve its artificial intelligence ability to identify birds.

Wisconsin’s location and climate allow for a variety of birds to visit.

“I’ve seen at least 300 (species) in Wisconsin,” Mann said, adding there are 10,000 bird species across the world.

He often doesn’t have to leave home. He set up his work desk facing a back window of their home that overlooks Sauk Creek Nature Preserve. That and a number of bird feeders have allowed Mann to see more than 120 species in his backyard.

Mann’s passion drove him to go birding everyday last year. He created goals for himself, either sitting in the same place for five minutes or walking three miles.

He goes to Port’s Coal Dock Park weekly and loves to go to Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton at sunrise before he starts his mechanical engineering job. By 9 a.m., he said, the park is full of people, including many birders.

The park’s bluffs, hardwood forest and prairies draw many species of birds, especially during peak migration season in May.

One of his rare finds last year was a black-headed gull near Sheboygan, a shorebird that hadn’t been seen in Wisconsin for a while.

Mann’s interest in birds has led him to intriguing discoveries about their survival skills. Birds that travel long distances can shrink their organs to increase lung capacity and barely sleep. Geese stand on one foot to conserve heat in their legs, and chickadees can lower their core temperature to stay alive in bitter cold.

Birds’ behavior, he said, differs by season and location. While in Wisconsin when they nest, birds stay quiet so as not to attract predators. In their northern homes, they sing to notify mates and to let each other know they’re nearby.

Great horned owls are starting to nest now, he said. That gives newborns time to learn to hunt before next winter.

About 90% of raptors, Mann said, don’t make it past their first year, usually due to starvation.

Harrington Beach State Park in the Town of Belgium is another of Mann’s favorite spots. In fall, he can see “cranes coming in from nowhere out of the clouds,” he said.

Mann and his wife have seen various birds while traveling to several states — California, Arizona and South Dakota are on the list — and last year’s pandemic-delayed trip to New Zealand was a real treat.

They saw albatross with three-meter wingspans, and their favorite birds were the world’s smallest penguins, which stand about 12 inches tall — little blue or fairy penguins. Adults would fish during the day and come back at dusk. Once they realize humans aren’t a threat, they pass close by on the way to their nests inside burrows.

Mann’s love of birds has led him into conservation efforts. He volunteers with the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, the Friends of the Cedarburg Bog and the Glacial Lakes Conservancy. He supports the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust.

In fall, Mann will give a talk on the ebird.org website for the newly formed Ozaukee Washington Birding Coalition.

He has as has helped do bird banding for the Bird and Bat Observatory,  which helps track birds through the Motus Wildlife Tracking System. It follows birds movement through the use of towers and radio telemetry.

For those considering taking up the hobby, Mann said the Merlin app acts as a field guide, making it easy to get started.

“You don’t need any skill to start, just time in the field,” he said.

Other birders welcome visitors learning the pastime.

“We’re a friendly bunch,” Mann said.

That camaraderie and the scientific discoveries about his feathered friends keep Mann watching, listening and researching.

“It’s endless. I’ll never stop learning,” he said.

For more information on area birding groups, visit the Ozaukee Washington Birding Coalition  (www.facebook.com/OWBirdingCoalition), the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (wsobirds.org), the Western Great Lakes Bird & Bat Observatory (wglbbo.org), Friends of the Cedarburg Bog (bogfriends.org), the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (www.owlt.org) and the Glacial Lakes Conservancy (www.glaciallakes.org).


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login